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Bartók’s Bagpipes

by Ronald Frame

An Improvisation

The famous, infamous composer Béla Bartók was in Glasgow, in November 1933, playing a solo recital of his piano works at the St. Andrew’s Hall. The recent slew of performances had exhausted him, and he was easily persuaded to take a few days’ rest in the Highlands.
Carnbeg was as far north as he got, but what he saw pleased him. Rather than one of the large resort hotels, where they were used to famous faces, he elected to stay with his traveling companion in a small guesthouse. Bartók couldn’t be anonymous even there, because the owner, Mrs. Strang, did like to be able place an accent, and the foreign gentleman’s quite foxed her. German he wasn’t, and she actually wondered about Swedish for a while, until the strangeness of his vowels sent her southwards, to the Balkans. She had a guessing-game on the subject with her friends, who all engaged the distinguished-looking fellow in conversation over high tea. (A fine head, good bones; but, the women couldn’t help noticing, a frayed shirt and a well-cut suit now shiny with age.) The guest in turn listened to their chorus of sing-songy voices, and he seemed as charmed by them as they were by him.

Then one day he heard it—the skirl of the pipes, from the Drinkwaters over the back wall. To the locals it was a bit of caterwauling, although confined to half-an-hour per day when he was letting rip out of doors. It was hard to make out a tune, but the sound seemed to be what held the ear of the gentleman from Budapest (he had finally owned up to the women where it was he hailed from).

Ella Mathieson told him about McDiarmid’s, in Soutar’s Vennel, and Jean Begg wrote directions on the back of an envelope, the same one he’d scribbled on (his friend had said something to Miss Armstrong about music being an interest), and, yes, that might have been notation wildly flung down on impromptu bar lines.

Inside McDiarmid’s—so Bartók would later recall from his American exile, in leafy Riverdale in the Bronx—he found himself in an enchanted grotto. Pipes and chanters galore, in every configuration for every size of sac, and the wind-bags mostly in brilliant plaid cloth rather than the dun leather hide he was used to. He fingered the chanters, and studied the double reed. Bass drones and tenor drones were explained. Some of the terms were jotted down for him: “pibroch,” “small music,” “big tune,” “cut,” “slurs,” “bubbly notes,” “triplings.” A number of sets were played to the customer, so that he could hear the quality and range.

McDiarmid’s supplied pipes far and wide. They exported the strains of Scotland to far-flung addresses in out-of-the-way colonies. As Bartók explained, the pipes produced a pitch and reverberation unlike anything he was used to. So delighted was he that he purchased a full set of, with spare reeds and seasoning for the bag and hemp for the joints and tuning slides. Old Mr. McDiarmid’s son offered to show him—slipping into rehearsed jargon—“the intricacies of the beast,” and they had a couple of tutorials: one in the shop, and one in the gentleman’s room at the guest house. Mrs. Strang did confirm that this would be one single occasion, not to be repeated, before granting approval. She closed the windows and turned up the wireless in the kitchen, keeping busy with her mincing and wringing. Upstairs, Neil McDiarmid demonstrated the pentatonic scales—A and G and D—and how to change key while holding the fixed pitch of the main notes. Downstairs, the cat arched its back, but only Mr Rodd from down the road complained, and he aye had a bee in his bunnet about something.

Mrs. Strang donated some wool she didn’t like the colour of, so that her guest could tie up the bagpipes; she also gave an old sheet to wrap them in, and the result was like a peddler’s bundle.

Somehow the object did make the journey home, across Europe, to Csalan út in the Buda Hills. Already home was chiefly in the man’s imagination, and transportable. The Scottish species of bagpipes were no substitute for Hungarian, or the Romanian cimpoi, but something of the wildness was shared—the restive dancing-step, and the descant drone of lament.


Ronald Frame was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated there and at Oxford University. Five of his novels have been published in the States. The most recent, The Lantern Bearers (Counterpoint), was honored by the American Library Association. He also writes for radio and television. (10/2005)

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